Ann Richards: Dreams Have a Way of Fading

The tormented life & mysterious death of Ann Richards, Stan Kenton’s bombshell bride and a supremely gifted yet sadly forgotten vocal-jazz siren

Photo of Ann Richards

As a teenager of the 1950s, singer Ann Richards fell in love from afar with the Toscanini of big-band jazz, Stan Kenton. He was 6-foot-4, silver-haired and old enough to be her father; she was a raven-haired bombshell, voluptuously endowed both physically and vocally.

Her goal of meeting him paid off spectacularly. He hired her to sing with his orchestra in 1954, and the next year he married her. In 1961 came the Capitol album Two Much!, on whose cover they stand side by side. Kenton dismissed skeptics: “Of all the singers we’ve had with the band,” he declared, “she’s the best musician.”

Richards had broken the mold set by Anita O’Day, June Christy and Chris Connor, Kenton’s famous “cool school” of husky-voiced, emotionally withholding singers. Her tone was as brassy as Kenton’s horns, and on Two Much! she rode them like a champion surfer, tearing through daredevil scat choruses, improvising with fiery imagination and zooming sky-high. Her predecessors had pitch issues; Richards was dead-on. “She was, as they say, the whole package,” says jazz singer Lorraine Feather, whose father, critic Leonard Feather, championed Richards avidly. “You had to swing to live up to the Kenton band,” Lorraine notes, “and she did.”

Her prodigious technique was equaled by her pathos: Richards sang with a Judy Garland-like lump in the throat and a vibrato that fluttered with feeling. Her look, like her singing, hinted of desperation; onstage she didn’t skimp on the eye makeup, the décolletage or the gesticulations. Dashed hopes are a theme of Two Much!—notably in “The Morning After (The Night Before),” the lament of a girl who gives her love too freely and always wakes up alone. “Dreams have a way of fading in the morning light,” Richards wails.

She wasn’t acting. “Ann had boyfriends by the thousands,” says her onetime roommate Donna Shore. “She never said no to anyone.” Time and again she rubbed elbows with fame; Feather predicted she would become “an important, nationally known figure.” But none of her five albums made her a star, nor did the 1961 Playboy spread that helped destroy her marriage.

By 1982 she was a down-and-out, unemployed lounge singer who had married unwisely. That spring, Richards, 46, was found on the floor of her Los Angeles home, a bullet through her head. Police ruled the death a suicide. Twenty-five years later that verdict holds—but those who knew her best have never believed it. Until now her story has been told only in fragments, even as reissues of her work keep reminding jazz fans of the blazing personality that was Ann Richards.

Richards in a Capitol press shot, c. 1955

A Star Is Born

The singer, who was born Margaret Ann Borden, looked for her father in every man. Her real one was a high-school principal in their Northern California hometown of Danville; friends say he deserted the family soon after Margaret was born on Oct. 1, 1935. The children adopted their mother’s maiden name, Richards. Margaret—who preferred to be called Ann—grew into a fun-loving, wistful young woman, naïve, impetuous and boy-crazy. She did abstract drawings and wrote poetic reflections on life.

Her mother taught school and hoped Ann would, too. In the meantime, she gave her daughter piano lessons. By 15, Ann had discovered she could sing. In nearby Oakland, she babysat for Judy Davis—the vocal coach of Garland, Streisand and Sinatra—in exchange for lessons. After her mom had gone to bed, Ann snuck out to sing in clubs and meet boys.

In 1954 she moved into a young women’s residence in San Francisco. She shared a room with Donna Shore, another jazz-crazy wild girl. Shore considered her a darling—“openhearted, open-armed and giving”—and cheered when a star bandleader, Charlie Barnet, heard Richards at a ballroom and snapped her up for a five-month tour.

When it ended she landed in Hollywood, crashing on a girlfriend’s sofa. That fall she saw A Star Is Born, in which Garland plays a band singer who is discovered dramatically and guided to fame by the powerful man who loves her. Maybe, Ann thought, the same might happen to her. Tops in her daydreams was the fatherly Kenton, whose music she had discovered through a beau. She loved how he had revolutionized orchestral jazz, audaciously crossing over into symphonic styles. In his music she heard echoes of Ravel and Debussy, two of her favorites.

That Thanksgiving, she joined some friends at a restaurant and piano bar on the Sunset Strip. Someone asked her to sing. Two dapper African-American men introduced themselves; they were Joe Greene and Eddie Beal, who had written dozens of songs for Kenton and his singers. To Richards’ astonishment, they booked her to record a demo. Greene and Beal played the finished product for Kenton. He promptly summoned Richards, age 19, to his office. “It was like being in the presence of God,” she recalled to Kenton biographer Carol Easton. Captivated, he hired her that day.

Cinderella moments kept coming. When Burt Korall of Metronome caught Kenton at Birdland, he singled out the still-tentative Richards as the band’s “big commercial asset,” praising her jazz feeling, intonation and star quality.

Even so, few of the musicians took her seriously. Word had spread that she was sleeping with the boss, and Richards had done the same with several of them. Bassist Max Bennett was a new band member. “After my first night, me and Ann got tight,” he recalls. “And the rest I’ll leave to your imagination.”

But Richards’ eye was on the leader. She told a girlfriend, “If I had a husband like Stan Kenton, wow, could I be happy! I could even give up my singing!” On Oct. 18, 1955, shortly before DownBeat named her the best female band singer of the year, she and Kenton wed. A week later, she retired.

Photo of Stan Kenton and Ann Richards
Richards with Stan Kenton at the 1960 Capitol Studios sessions for “Two Much!”

The Ballad of Stan & Ann

As she knew, the maestro who prided himself on regal control was, offstage, a neurotic, falling-down alcoholic who needed constant mothering. They had two children, Dana and Lance, but the couple’s skills did not include parenting. By the late ’50s, a stir-crazy Richards was back on the road with Kenton but eager to forge her own identity. Capitol Records got behind her, showcasing her lavishly on two orchestral albums, I’m Shooting High and The Many Moods of Ann Richards.

Freed from a band singer’s restraints, Richards blossomed. “Lullaby of Broadway” found her swinging like her idol, Ella Fitzgerald; her vocal beauty and dramatic flair shone through in “Lazy Afternoon,” arranged in Japanese folk style. Said Richards in a press release: “One thing Stan and I don’t agree on is this: He says you either have a voice and use it like an instrument, or you’re an actress and your voice is secondary. I think there is a way to combine the two. One must approach a song as a vignette. Look at the lyric for what it means to you. Technique, on the other hand, is learned, automatic. My voice will take care of itself because it’s trained.”

Her career was heating up. In 1960 Richards played Carnegie Hall with Kenton and appeared on Steve Allen’s NBC-TV show. Then came Two Much!, on which she shed all traces of vocal politeness and soared, propelled by Kenton’s greatest arrangers: Bill Holman, Johnny Richards, Gene Roland. In a rave review, Billboard predicted that Richards would take her place among O’Day, Christy and Connor.

Whatever the acclaim, she sought approval with her body. A publicity photo shows her posed outside Las Vegas’ Riviera hotel in a one-piece swimsuit; in a mysterious piece of film, Richards strips to her scanties in the woods. When Playboy offered her a nude spread, Richards impulsively said yes. “I thought it would help my career,” she said later. For obvious reasons, she didn’t consult her husband. Kenton, she complained, treated her like a child; in Playboy she would prove him wrong. She agreed to be photographed at home while he was away.

Richards poses in front of Las Vegas’ Riviera hotel and casino, c. 1960

The June 1961 issue hit the stands. According to Kenton’s publicist, Noel Wedder, the publisher of DownBeat, Chuck Suber, confronted the bandleader in Chicago with the magazine. Stan saw the title—“Ann, Man! Kenton’s Canary Sheds Her Feathers for Playboy”—and froze. Kenton trumpeter Steve Huffsteter gives an alternate account. Word about the photos had spread among the band, and apparently someone had tipped off Kenton. The next morning, as the musicians waited in the hotel lobby, the elevator opened. Stan, says Huffsteter, “went straight to the news rack, opened up Playboy, then got back into the elevator and called his lawyer.”

Richards scrambled to save face. Interviewed by columnist James Bacon, she swore she’d been had: “I specified there would be nothing bare. Now who’s going to listen to my voice?” Vanity took over as she added, “Look at those lines in my neck. Aren’t they horrible? What will people think?”

The marriage was through. Kenton won custody of the kids; Richards walked off with a flat $50,000. She declined alimony, in part because jazz spots all over the country, including the Playboy Clubs, now wanted her. Atco, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records, capitalized on the nude spread with Ann, Man!, an album of bluesy sex-kitten songs. It showed off her growing strengths. In a tough, vampish “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby,” Richards swings hard and improvises like a horn player, egged on by trumpeter Jack Sheldon. On the Dinah Washington hit “Evil Gal Blues” she’s an irresistible witch, promising ruin to her swains. She returns to her trademark dejection in “How Do I Look in Blue?,” sung tenderly with Barney Kessel on guitar.

Ann Richards, c. 1963

Between Playboy & the PTA

Breaks kept coming. In 1963 Richards opened for George Shearing on a tour of Japan. Once home, she settled into the Losers, a trendy Hollywood club, to record an album for Vee-Jay Records, backed by the trio of Bill Marx, the pianist she considered her soulmate. Bystanders were sure that she and the handsome Marx—Harpo’s adopted son—were an item, but uncharacteristically she treated him as a brother; they even slept in the same bed platonically.

Like her other LPs, Live at the Losers sold disappointingly. Vee-Jay’s cash cows were the Beatles, whose early records had made their American debut on the label. As rock burgeoned, singers like Richards were becoming passé. She fantasized about film acting, but the only part she got was a seconds-long cameo as a bar floozy in Angel’s Flight, a 1965 potboiler about a murderous stripper in downtown L.A.

In a rare show of practicality, Richards took a secretarial job to augment her singing income. Her divorce money had bought her a small house in the Hollywood Hills. “Annie really pulled her act together,” says Marx, who sensed she “wanted legitimacy in her life.” But her friend Ted Sitterley, who worked in finance, felt the singer’s unrest. “She was just so insecure,” he recalls. “Things were never quite what she wanted. She would latch onto this idea today and that one tomorrow. She never seemed to have any money.”

Kenton hadn’t forgiven her, but according to his third wife, Jo Ann Hill, he was secretly sending her checks. The two women had unexpectedly bonded: Ann counseled Jo Ann on handling the still-alcoholic Kenton, while Jo Ann helped reunite Ann with her estranged children. The singer remained an awkward parent. “All the kids in my elementary school had moms in mumus,” Dana says. “Mine would show up once in a while to a PTA meeting with a ponytail and go-go boots and a miniskirt. It was so embarrassing.”

The troubled Dana eventually lapsed into hard drugs, delinquency and promiscuity. She bounced among rehab facilities and moved in briefly with Richards, who wound up crying on her daughter’s shoulder about failed love affairs. In the late ’60s Dana, followed by her unaddicted brother, were shipped off to Synanon, a Southern California rehabilitation village favored by jazz musicians, including Stan. But Synanon had devolved into what writer Stephen Johnson called a “hellish nightmare cult” based on mind control and moneymaking schemes. Dana left after a year but Lance stayed a decade, relishing the sense of family he found there.

It ended gruesomely when he got caught up in a retribution scheme commandeered by founder Chuck Dederich. In 1978, Dederich’s arch enemy Paul Morantz—a lawyer intent on exposing Synanon’s alleged crimes—reached inside his mailbox and was bitten by a rattlesnake. He barely survived. Lance and a Synanon crony confessed their guilt. They landed in jail.

Photo of Ann Richards
Richards appears in a souvenir photo for the Sands in Las Vegas, c. 1970

A Fateful Introduction

By the mid-’70s Richards had scaled down her ambitions. She had become the resident singer in the lounge of the posh Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles. Backed by pianist Bud Herrmann, she sang whatever she or the customers wanted, dipping into a fake book when needed. Film critic Rex Reed, a fan, dropped by on a slow night. “She performed half a set seated at my table, with a mic in one hand and a scotch in the other,” he recalls. “She sang like a dream. She invited me to come for drinks at her house. I told her I would call her, but I never did. I had always heard she was an insatiable nymphomaniac, so naturally I was terrified.”

In 1978, Marx showed up with a stranger he had met at a gig. Frederick William Botts Jr., known as Bill, was a tall, well-dressed life-insurance salesman from Texas; he had asked Marx to suggest things to do in L.A. The pianist introduced him to Richards. They quickly began an affair.

A recent divorcé with children, Botts aspired to film producing. One night, says Sitterley, Botts sat with him at the Bel-Air and “started chatting about his Hollywood connections. I’m sure he wanted to find out how interested I would be in assisting.” Botts, he concluded, was “full of crap.” Marx agreed. But to Richards he exuded stability, and later that year, they were married.

Friends suspected she didn’t really like him and might even be afraid of him. After two strained years, the couple separated. Botts acquired a girlfriend, while Richards began a drug-fueled affair with the married cofounder of a high-end audio-product manufacturer. Richards confided the distressing news to Shore that the two of them were freebasing (smoking pure cocaine). At home, she kept a jug of wine by her bed.

Deterioration is clear in her last photo shoot, done in 1981. In it, Richards is 45 but looks 10 years older, and as gaunt as an anorexic Karen Carpenter. Revisiting past glories, she proudly showed Sitterley her Playboy contact sheets. But so fragile was her self-esteem that when Botts asked for a divorce, she panicked and refused.

In December, Richards made a tour of Japan. Once home, she found that her world had collapsed. The Bel-Air had replaced her, and the husband she clung to had heavily mortgaged her home for cash; according to Dana he hoped to produce a female wrestling film. Richards was left broke. Sitterley urged her to let him investigate, but she was too depressed to follow through. Botts’ pipe dream failed, but as Dana later learned, he retained an important asset: the insurance policy he’d taken out on her mother’s life.

In one of their last phone conversations, Richards told Shore she had cut her wrists—just “kitty-cat scratches,” she joked. Had she meant business, Richards could have reached into the closet for the rifle Botts had given her, ostensibly to protect herself in her remote pocket of the Hollywood Hills. But she couldn’t bear to touch it. “She did not like guns at all,” Sitterley says.

Richards appears gaunt and exhausted in her last-known press images, taken in 1981

Blood & Circumstance

On Thursday, April 1, 1982, the Los Angeles Police Department got a call from Botts. He hadn’t heard from his estranged wife in three weeks, he reported, and had gone to the house to check up on her. He found her dead.

Officers rushed over. They saw Richards lying by her bed in pajamas and slippers. Blood and maggots were everywhere. There was a bullet wound in her right temple; the rifle lay not far away. Nearby was a letter in which she poetically detailed her depression. The police read it as a suicide note, although according to Dana it voiced no clear goodbye.

After the body had been removed, Dana went to the house. She saw signs of a normal night interrupted: On a cutting board in the kitchen were sliced meat and vegetables, ready for dinner. Dana found “three gigantic vials” of what appeared to be cocaine in her mother’s purse; inside the freezer she saw what looked like “a bunch of pot.” Inexplicably, the cops hadn’t seized them. Later, she tried the coke and judged it to be fake; the marijuana, she believed, was merely “fake pot or tea leaves.”

To her, all fingers pointed to Botts. “My mom was so concerned about her beauty, she wouldn’t have killed herself like this. She didn’t even know how to use that gun.” Dana suspected he had planted the bogus drugs as a smokescreen. But the case was closed. Lance—who did not respond to JT’s interview requests—pushed for further investigation but got nowhere.

The singer’s closest friends leaned toward Dana’s theory. Richards, says Marx, was so compulsively neat that she once scolded him for splashing water on the bathroom mirror. “There’s no way she could have splattered her brains all over the wall,” he says. Jo Ann Kenton still suspects foul play—“but we can’t prove it.”

Sitterley requested the police report and was turned down. The LAPD now reports it as unavailable and perhaps destroyed.

Donna Shore organized an all-day memorial at Carmelo’s, a jazz club in Sherman Oaks, Calif. Marx, Sheldon, Lou Levy, Bill Henderson and other West Coast jazz favorites paid poignant tribute. Conspicuously absent was Botts, but he soon surfaced to claim his share of the estate. Not surprisingly, Richards had left no will. “We argued all the way down to a vacuum cleaner,” Dana says. “He took my mom for every penny she had.”

The following year, Botts remarried. When he died in 2011, his detailed obituary made no mention of Richards. But many of those who knew her are still haunted by the abundantly gifted and troubled artist who lived as she died: like a bewitching but doomed songstress in a film noir.

[All images courtesy of Dana Kenton Harrloe, except Kenton/Richards and the Riviera hotel courtesy of the University of North Texas Libraries.]

Preview, buy or download songs from Ann Richards on iTunes.

Read Doug Ramsey’s review of Stan Kenton’s Stompin’ at Newport album from 1957.